PARIS — As often as Marc Chagall’s figures fly off the ground in his paintings, there’s often the impulse to bring the painter himself down to earth: hunt down historical considerations, to tie him to the real. The Russian artist lived through the 20th century almost in its entirety — he was nearly 100 when he died in 1985 — experiencing two world wars, a genocide in which he was deemed “degenerate” by the S.S. regime, and fleeing Vichy France in 1941. However often his work lived in the imagination, it’s hard to forget these events existing in the background of the artist’s life.
But as much as the exhibition “Marc Chagall, Entre Guerre et Paix,” currently on view at Paris’s Musée du Luxembourg, does put focus on the political context of the artist’s works, it doesn’t de-sentimentalize any qualities of work that was, overall, tied much more to autobiography than to any historiography. Featuring 102 works, including oil paintings on canvas and paper, but also ink drawings, preparatory gouaches, watercolors, and pencil drawings, the exhibition (on view through July 21) translates to “between war and peace” — a nod to Tolstoy — and is centered around the artist’s depictions of both themes in the span from the start of the first world war to his post-war period later in the south of France.
The show has the advantage of showing his works that have explicit references to the war: black and white drawings (The Salute, The Wounded Soldier, and Departure for War, all from 1914) and paintings with darker tones, such as War, painted in 1943, with its dirty whites, yellows, and reds, and an almost transparent figure lying on the ground, arms outspread. But the compositions constantly draw from Chagall’s personal life, including works of his wife Bella, and of the Russian culture of his childhood. His numerous references to Judaism are more related to his illustrations of biblical scenes (Abraham Mourning Sarah, 1931) than to a perspective on denouncing the atrocities of the time: In Chagall’s work, contemporary suffering is essentially evoked through allegory with the recurring crucifixion theme. As the painter said himself in 1958: “I found wars, revolutions, and everything that goes with them… But also, I met rare people, and contact with them often calmed me and persuaded me to persevere. More clearly and more distinctly, with age, I feel the relative rightness of our paths and the ridiculousness of everything that is not obtained through one’s own senses or one’s own soul, that is not pervaded by love.” And the exhibition also features the whimsical or dreamlike qualities most associated with Chagall: landscapes dominated by color, levitating couples over the tiny roofs of villages and towns, animals with green and blue fur. It’s hard to escape the presence of emotions and fantasy (and, indeed, one part of the exhibition is titled Toward Dreams).
Essentially, Chagall didn’t paint history; he told stories. He was never tempted by abstraction, and his art is almost literary, often against the grain of the aesthetic experiments of his time (despite his Cubist and Constructivist temptations and latent Surrealism). This is what brings him closer to Tolstoy (aside from his Russian nationality) than to Breton, Matisse, Picasso, or Modigliani. And what the exhibition does reveal, as is often with shows that span long periods of time, is a sense of an evolution of themes and technique. The most convincing examples are when two versions of the same subject are compared: as with two views of Chagall’s hometown, one from 1915-20, Above Vitebsk, with fragmented, Cubist perspectives; and another from ten years later, Rooster-Man Above Vitebsk, which features naïve representations and big patches of color. It is too bad that the exhibition doesn’t feature any works from Chagall’s pre-1914 duration in Paris, however, considered to be his most inventive period.
Critics might see a sentimental painter with stimulating beginnings and a disappointing maturity; those who love the artist’s work will instead have a nice panorama of how it evolved over time. And it likely won’t affect the artist’s popularity — as at auctions like the 2010 Christie’s sale of Bouquet of Carnations With Lovers in Green (1950) for $722,500 — which has certainly not dwindled over time.